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The reason white male academics can’t get jobs Affirmative action isn't solely to blame

Claudine Gay had her position called into question last year. (Getty)

Claudine Gay had her position called into question last year. (Getty)


May 31, 2024   6 mins

As a youngish white male historian, stuck in a university system that tends to deem your race and sex as a problem inherited from history, what can you do to make your already slim chances of getting a permanent academic job yet more wraith-like? Based on this week’s case study — a hapless Yale University postdoctoral researcher called David Austin Walsh — the answer seems to be: engage in a frustrated social-media rant about how you’re struggling to find a tenured job, and then in a moment of madness add a reference to preferential hiring practices working against your being white and male.

But why stop there? To create even better conditions for career destruction, make sure that — like Walsh — you have hitherto impressive progressive credentials, having just published a monograph putatively connecting US conservatism to racism and fascism. (Only last week Walsh authored a New York Times op ed to advertise said book, alleging that “a generation of young Republican staff members appears to be developing terminal white nationalist brain”.)

For luck, combine your rant about the difficulty of getting a job as a “white dude” with showboating about personal accomplishments and popularity, and the claim that you are better qualified than many of those to whom you have lost out in the past. In doing all this, you will have gifted envious fellow academics the means and opportunity to ruin you reputationally, while pretending to be striking a blow in the name of anti-racism. Meanwhile, a gleeful conservative commentariat will goad and mock you for being a self-loathing sap, for whom the subservient pose did not work in any case.

From the outside, it’s impossible to say whether Walsh was right in his since-retracted diagnosis of why he has yet to make the cut. Faced with repeated rejections, it is of course comforting to think there must be a more impersonal explanation than the simple fact you aren’t as impressive as your rivals. Even so, a quick look at the academic jobs market makes it clear Walsh’s inference was understandable, whether or not it is correct.

For instance: this week, 84 jobs are advertised under “History” on the international career website jobs.ac.uk, of which the majority are temporary positions. By my reckoning, around 10% — a significant trend, though not overwhelmingly so — have a direct or indirect reference to non-white ethnicity. Vacancies include: a career development fellowship in West African history; a professorship in “Anticolonial, Postcolonial and Decolonial Histories and Praxes”; a research fellowship in archaeology aimed at candidates “of Black Identity or Heritage”; a studentship entitled “Mapping Fossil Colonialism in Asia” and another on “Decolonising the Pathways between Soil Science Agricultural Policy”; a career development fellowship in “Global (African) History”; and a “Research Fellow in Reparative Studies of Education”. (In what sounds like a project guaranteed to put kids off academia for life, the latter examines “reparations and reparative justice in school education” and collaborates “with primary school-communities in the city of Bristol to design and conduct in-depth ethnographic and oral-history research on the features and mechanisms of structural inequities”).

Though the managers who wrote these adverts might not admit the fact, it seems safe to assume that in their ideal scenarios, the associated posts would not be filled by white men. Still, there are more David Austin Walshs in humanities subjects than you might think: beavering away on some heinous aspect of the Atlantic slave trade, settler colonialism, Jim Crow or forced migration, hoping it will save them. Undoubtedly, they believe they do valuable work, and some do; but that isn’t to say they would have made the same research choices in a different context. Universities have been in the grip of transitory intellectual fashions for centuries, and today is no different.

Such transactional behaviour doesn’t fit with the popular archetype of the unworldly scholar, going only where his curiosity takes him for nothing more than the thrill of the chase. But the contemporary chronicler of negative European legacies need not be cynical or self-loathing; no more so, anyway, than any other person with ambition, naturally gravitating towards what will serve as a means of getting ahead. On the contrary, looking for a competitive edge in this crowded field makes him a rational actor. Thousands of freshly anointed doctorate-holders are disgorged every year into an international jobs market that’s already heaving, and permanent positions are vanishingly rare. This, I submit, is the more immediately convincing explanation of why Walsh cannot get a job: simply put, the numbers game is overwhelmingly against him.

In 2020-21, there were nearly 105,000 doctoral students enrolled in UK universities, which coincidentally was around the same number of staff employed on academic contracts at the time. One survey reported that 67% of doctoral students desired an academic job at the end of it; in reality though, only a small proportion of them could possibly succeed. Since then, the number of PhD students has reportedly risen, yet undergraduate numbers in the arts and humanities are falling, and many universities are either making redundancies or are on the brink. In other words: this does not look like a good sector in which to invest several more years of your one wild and precious life.

Equally though, it is far from clear that doing a PhD gives you an advantage in non-academic fields either. Having perhaps hung around for a couple of temporary research associate jobs after your doctorate, or nearly killed yourself in short-term teaching positions covering other people’s leave, once you eventually accept your fate and get out of academia you will have to start again as a junior to peers of the same age. You will probably have substantially more debt than them, and some employers will now perceive you as fatally over-specialised.

The only recent study I know of which tries to gauge whether there is a financial benefit to getting a PhD finds a “modest” premium for doctorate-holders over the course of a lifetime, but less so for humanities than for other disciplines. It also notes that financial benefits tend to accrue late in one’s career, due an increased association between PhD-holding and management positions. Arguably, this makes the outlook for arts and humanities doctorates worse not better. Temperamentally, the sort of person attracted to spending four years furrowing his brow in a dusty archive may not be a particularly natural fit with management.

So, why do people still pursue PhDs in subjects like History at all? One plausible answer is that they don’t know how poor their chances are of getting a university post at the end of it. Though managers and research council heads occasionally make vaguely deprecatory noises — after all, most universities run doctoral programmes at a financial loss they can barely afford — the information does not seem to be filtering through to the average applicant. And it’s hardly their fault.

On the contrary, university websites tend to contain enthusiastic descriptions of the benefits of postgraduate studies. At departmental level, many faculty members are extremely keen to entice potential doctoral applicants from their existing pool of undergraduate and Master’s students — more plainly, to intellectually groom them — for the self-interested reason that having a strong record of doctoral supervision is often a condition of successful promotion as a lecturer. Other staff have research specialties that don’t lend themselves to teaching on big undergraduate courses and so also have a vested interest in supervising as many PhDs as possible, in order to maintain an appearance of earning their keep. And then there’s the fact that, for some, having doctoral students around the place is treated as a sign of prestige, and speaks more to their vision of the leisurely discursive joys of academic life than giving repetitive lectures to masses of bored undergraduates.

“Many are exploited by management for cheap teaching labour while pretending it will increase their career chances, and that doesn’t help dispel the fantasies either.”

In short, then, those already working in universities cannot be trusted about the true value of a PhD in relation to the prospects of those they supervise. They have too much skin in the game. Lured in by fantasies — both their own, and those of their supervisors — it is all too easy for doctoral students to start imagining themselves as fully-formed lecturers before they have finished their first chapter; at which point nobody wants to tell them they don’t actually stand a chance in hell. Many are exploited by management for cheap teaching labour while pretending it will increase their career chances, and that doesn’t help dispel the fantasies either. In my experience, trying to warn someone halfway through a PhD that they should conjure up an alternative plan for the future doesn’t go down well — the time to say this was probably before they told all their relatives they had decided they were going to be a lecturer.

For a professional sector so stuffed with moralists obsessed with informed consent, it is perhaps surprising that a relatively grave injustice is done to thousands of new doctoral students in universities every year without anyone really noticing. What isn’t as surprising is that, at the other end of the experience, the victims of the scam — for what else can we call it? — tend to feel angry and disillusioned. A bit like disappointed incels once sold a dream of romance, depressive types with “Dr” emblazoned on their credit cards mope around university cities, heads full of incommunicable knowledge and hearts full of embitterment, unable to fully accept that their imagined story arc didn’t work out even after all those flattering things their supervisors and examiners said. Though resentful would-be intellectuals are not the easiest of characters to feel sorry for, in this case we should probably try.


Kathleen Stock is an UnHerd columnist and a co-director of The Lesbian Project.
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William Cameron
William Cameron
1 month ago

I have been lucky and succeeded in both University Life and City of London life. (With pretty thin academic exam results).
I found the the University folk had an irrational terror of the commercial world. They had been fed a totally untrue picture of it being horrible and wicked. So, they wanted to stay within Academia (while complaing they were not paid much).
Just look at the data in the article. All those PHDs man for man marking full time academics. You dont need a first in applied Maths to work out your pay isnt going to be very good when you are a supplicant in that market.
It’s a doddle to earn over £100 grand in the City. Find your way to the office and buy your round on Friday night- your in. In Academia you need to be a professor.

Brian Matthews
Brian Matthews
1 month ago

Good Lord what a rats nest!

Michel Starenky
Michel Starenky
1 month ago

Resolve the issue de-fund the unis. Not a penny of public funding.

Thomas K.
Thomas K.
1 month ago

I couldn’t agree more with that last line. Seeing as some of the most evil, monstrous ideologies ever to blight the face of the Earth have sprung from the embittered minds of resentful would-be intellectuals, this is a problem that we really should tackle sooner rather than later.

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
1 month ago
Reply to  Thomas K.

The overproduction of elites is not going to end well.

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
1 month ago

As predicted by Peter Turchin

Thomas Wagner
Thomas Wagner
1 month ago

As foreseen in Brave New World‘s “island of alphas” where no one consented to be governed by others, and necessary tasks were secondary to fighting about who would do them.

Alan B
Alan B
1 month ago
Reply to  Thomas K.

How do you plan to identify and corral “resentful would-be intellectuals”? Have you considered the possibility that “monstrous ideologies” may arise from that very impulse? Does exposure to education disqualify one from employment in your intellectual parasite extermination programme, or can one be sanitized (“saved”?) and made serviceable to the glorious cause?

Serious questions. Asking for a friend.

General Store
General Store
1 month ago
Reply to  Alan B

How about simply stop funding them; go back to policemen and nurses without degrees; fund trade schools; fund on presumption of living at home; incentivize on the job/part time degrees…Eliminate all funding for woke pseudo grievance disciplines; fold all social science back into core disciplines of sociology/anthropology (and get rid of all ‘studies’); go back to end of year hand written exams; get rid of continual assessment….TBH it is so bloody easy

Kat L
Kat L
1 month ago
Reply to  General Store

Easy to say more challenging to implement.

Thomas K.
Thomas K.
1 month ago
Reply to  Alan B

My comment was in response to the last line of the article. I was suggesting that we should be compassionate towards such people and try figure out why they’re resentful to try and work together on an individual level to find a way to help them feel, I don’t know, less resentful?

Instead you immediately assume I mean an impersonal, society-wide, ‘final solution’ type thing. Which is the exact kind of thinking that I was warning against.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 month ago

I’m a PhD chemist (ok, strictly speaking a biochemist, but I did the chemical side of biochemistry, not the gene-jockey side). I obtained my PhD in 1987 and even back then the field was overcrowded.
During my brief scientific career I observed the relentless outsourcing of full-time industry jobs to the developing world. Today, for example, a pharmaceutical company is likely to outsource most of its drug synthesis and testing work to an Asian country, with only a couple of US chemists directing the overall research program.
Meanwhile, most basic scientific research is done by graduate students and post-docs in universities, and a large percentage of them are foreign-born. In my time, they were recipients of so-called J visas (student visas) or H1B visas (postdoctoral visas). There was briefly an organization called (so far as I recall) The Union of Concerned Scientists, which was founded by postdocs who couldn’t find full-time jobs. It was never relevant. Each year the number of H1B visas issued by the US increased.
Here’s the hard truth about higher education, and it has been true for at least thirty years. Most undergraduate and post-graduate degrees are worthless from the standpoint of making a living. The commercially valuable degrees are related to medicine and to IT and electrical engineering. Maybe also accounting (I’m not sure about that one). The further you stray from those disciplines, the less chance you have of making a good living based on your degree. From a financial perspective, most of academia is a scam.
So why do young people keep buying into this fraudulent, manufactured dream? Because they’ve been taught a degree is the path to a “professional” career. If the authorities were to be brutally honest with young people, they’d say most of you have no significant chance of making a decent living in a profession. There are too many of you, and too few jobs. Save your time and money and study a trade; anything from hairdressing to plumbing.
But that admission would destroy the illusion of progress. Yes, your parents and grandparents might have bettered themselves by going to uni, but that’s finished now. Unless you have the aptitude for medicine or computer programming, or you are truly brilliant in a science or humanities subject, it’s best not to bother with university.
No government (or university) in its right mind would deliver that message, yet such truthfulness would be a kindness to the current generation of young people.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree 30 years ago. Even then, I wasn’t under the delusion it would guarantee me some spectacular career. How can any university student today think anything other than a highly specialized degree will earn them a lucrative career? Students who think otherwise must be living under a rock.

Ian_S
Ian_S
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

But OTH, any office job above receptionist now requires a basic degree. You have to go through a credential mill for that kind of job. Masters degrees are a useful extra for promotion to management in a bureaucracy. PhDs are just a scam, as JB says. Don’t ask.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian_S

I’m not sure which way round this is. I have been recruiting staff recently, but not stipulated a degree. This is for office jobs in a professional services department. Nearly every applicant has a degree, but is this because so many people now have one? I end up having to decide which candidates with a first, vocational master’s and PhD who have also found time to do voluntary work with various worthy causes do I even shortlist.

julia abbott
julia abbott
1 month ago

You shortlist those with relevant work experience and solid references. If there aren’t enough of those then also shortlist the youngest of the very bright because they will learn quickly and still have the curiousity and enthusiasm to want to.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

It’s a bit harsh to say they’re living under a rock. They will have had their teachers at school telling them exams and study are important, their parents (from an earlier generation) encouraging this as they think university is still the way to go, their lecturers providing an example of what can be done, even the media tend to present a positive side etc etc. They haven’t met the real world yet and will still have the natural assumption of youth that bad things happen to other people. They’re young and naive and they’re taken advantage of. I know one person (biology PhD), bright and hardworking, with £200k student debt, earning about £30k.

David Hirst
David Hirst
1 month ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

Two MPhils by research in cell biology / + public health / nutrition. Have never come close to 30K, and have had lots of gaps between fixed-term jobs Nearly ended up homeless earlier this year.

David Hirst
David Hirst
1 month ago
Reply to  David Hirst

Surplus ‘ / ‘ in there, Dammit!

William Cameron
William Cameron
1 month ago
Reply to  David Hirst

That tells me something. What stopped you using the edit feature ?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago
Reply to  David Hirst

Put those good brain cells on something USEFUL! Septic tanks, etc.

Kat L
Kat L
1 month ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

Don’t discount the influence of parents who seem to take for granted that children have to attend college.

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Status. The educational system is a CASTE system. Not only but especially in the U.S.A.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 month ago

This a million times. People with ‘doctor’ in front of their name are taken very seriously. It’s almost like joining an aristocracy.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
1 month ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Yes, that title still gets undeserved preferential treatment everywhere it goes.

Geoff W
Geoff W
1 month ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

In my experience, absolutely not.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
1 month ago
Reply to  Geoff W

In my experience absolutely yes. I was married to a doctor and to watch people’s demeanor and expression change when he told them he was a doctor was hilarious. The power dynamic immediately changed and doors opened wherever we went.

William Cameron
William Cameron
1 month ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

The past tense may be significant ?

Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
1 month ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

What kind of a doctor? An MD or PHD?

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
1 month ago
Reply to  Betsy Arehart

Yes.

Harrydog
Harrydog
1 month ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Whenever someone with PhD in a non-medical field likes to tout their doctor title, my go to response is to ask them if they can remove a skin tag. If not, just be quiet.”

Kat L
Kat L
1 month ago
Reply to  Harrydog

Why though? They’ve worked very hard on their degree that’s one of the payoffs.

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Unless you have the aptitude for medicine or computer programming

I can’t speak for medicine, but I give computing/software development 10 years at best. A lot of your observations regarding pharmacology also applies to software, with vast quantities of jobs outsourced to India but the industry has expanded at a greater rate than the outflow of jobs.
I suspect that AI, initially as a force that will improve productivity, but eventually as a means of making most software developers obsolete.

McLovin
McLovin
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

Yes, AI is going to make lots of people in India redundant. Meanwhile a small cadre of people are going to get immeasurably rich from all this, while still pretending how much they want to save the planet and empower people etc. I read the phrase “neo-feudalism” somewhere recently which is very apt.

Mangle Tangle
Mangle Tangle
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

Uumm. Not sure about that. Most CTOs I know see these new technologies as great productivity tools but no one is going to trust them to write stable, bug-free systems for a long time yet. Perhaps ever.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

The quiet part people don’t like to say out loud is that a lot of jobs came back from India. There’s still a ton of outsourcing from the USA but where do the jobs go now? UK. Eastern Europe. Sometimes Germany but that’s losing its appeal quickly as US tech firms discover how hard it is to lay people off there.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

It sounds grim and sad.

Alan B
Alan B
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

There’s a lot to agree with here, but it should be noted that by rhetorical legerdemain you slipped from criticizing graduate degrees to university education in general

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

The reason to go to university, for most degrees, is for personal development.
As to your list, I think I would be leery of driving across a bridge not designed by an engineer team. So you can add those jobs.
You can scratch computer programming from your list. AI is replacing such spots fast.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
1 month ago
Reply to  Bret Larson

Last sentence: where’d you get idea? Do you know anyone who has tried to use AI for coding?
I try often because I’m a programmer with more ideas than time. The most expensive models are still light years from being able to replace even new grad developers. It’s not like art or writing where they’re already at the level of mastery.

General Store
General Store
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I have a phd and three masters degrees, 30 years experience, tenure in 3 institutions. However, I now won’t take white male doctoral students because they won’t get a job. It’s as simple as that. I have dissuaded my kids from spending north of 100k on a traditional campus university because for anything other than very hard core STEM (and I mean hardcore), they are paying for being indoctrinated and won’t even learn how to write….let alone count. Do a degree part-time, online ….if necessary, whilst working. Set up a business. Learn a trade. Stay away from any organization with a DEI department. I can’t wait to retire. Today they have a ceremony to raise the PRIDE flag in my faculty. They are celebrating diversity in research. And there is an encampment of students shouting ‘death to the Jews’. I’m guessing a Catholic flag or a Conservative flag will be raised pretty soon…with all this diversity of perspective.

Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

The parallel narrative is the trend to make jobs that previously didn’t require a degree now require one. Nurses, policemen etc.

General Store
General Store
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew Wise

ANd suddenly midwives and nurses are forced to refer to chest feeding, people with vaginas and the rest ….

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew Wise

This is the difference between the state funding degrees and young people burying themselves in debt to get degrees. If students who have failed to get a promised career with said degree could then sue the universities, we might see change but until then…
I’ve discouraged my kids from going to university, and encouraged them to find apprenticeships.

Kat L
Kat L
1 month ago
Reply to  Lindsay S

I say seize the endowments above a certain threshold if the student cannot find a job comparable to the loan payoff within 10 years’ time.

Kent Ausburn
Kent Ausburn
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I have a PhD in Geology and have had a lucrative satisfying career as a minerals exploration geologist. I initially earned a BS and then an MS, as I was told a BS in Geology was not really a professional degree. After a few years as an exploration geologist for a major mining company I decided to go back to school to earn a PhD, because I liked the taste of research I experienced completing my MS degree and I realized that the PhD credential did provide a leg-up as an independent consultant, which was my goal not being much of a corporate animal. I did consider pursuing an academic-research position for a short period of time, but after having spent too many years in academia I was disgusted with the whole academic scene and wanted no further part of it.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Can you actually get a PhD in accounting? I don’t think I ever heard of such a thing.

William Cameron
William Cameron
1 month ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

I have a fellowship in my accountancy qualification- yes you can get a Phd in Accounting . Debits on the left. Sign here.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I have been told that my salary at an academic independent school compares very favourably with university assistant professors.

Laurence Eyton
Laurence Eyton
1 month ago

Does any PhD really have Dr on their credit card? Or as a form of address in public outside of the university itself or some kind of academic environment? I have a PhD as do most of my friends and none of us would think of doing so.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  Laurence Eyton
Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

She, I believe, has an Ed.D., which is more prestigious than a Ph.D. and more worthwhile than an M.D.

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
1 month ago

Ha!

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

At first I was aghast at this comment, until i realized you were joking!

Bravo! Yes, the “real” President of the United States has a doctorate in education, which is really picking apple parts from the bottom of the barrel!

Geoff W
Geoff W
1 month ago
Reply to  Laurence Eyton

I never used the title “Dr” outside academic contexts. But I once heard an announcement at my local airport, asking “Professor So-and-So” to contact an airline’s information counter, and recognised the rather uncommon name as belonging to the Dean of my Faculty (oh, I beg his pardon: the “Executive” Dean).

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
1 month ago
Reply to  Geoff W

Is being Executive Dean in academia like being Executive Producer on a movie, where they want to reward you but don’t want to give you more money?

Geoff W
Geoff W
1 month ago

Exactly the same job used to be called the “Dean.”
The addition of “Executive” perhaps unconsciously reflects the fact that these days they’re just hatchet men for the Vice-Chancellor, rather than advocates for their disciplines.

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
1 month ago
Reply to  Laurence Eyton

Back in the 1990’s, a university colleague (exceptionally scruffy, ill-kempt, ageing hippy) said he was in an airport departure lounge and was summoned by tannoy to the desk where he was told that they had over-booked second class and he had been chosen for an upgrade to first class. He could only imagine that his distinguishing characteristic was that he had the title “Dr” on his credit card for the booking and the airline probably hoped he was a respectable physician (Back in the 1990’s: no photo ID was needed for domestic flights in the USA). Ever since then, I have had “Dr” on my credit card, but I have never once had an airline upgrade.

julia abbott
julia abbott
1 month ago

Yet another thing to dissuade me from undertaking a PhD …

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
1 month ago
Reply to  Laurence Eyton

I got my PhD 20+ years ago but left academia within a year.

For anything really official, e.g. writing a will or communicating with a government agency, I use Dr as it is my proper title regardless of whether I lecture in a university.

In day to day life I never use it. If i was applying for a credit card now I’d just use Mr, but the card I’ve had since the early 2000s does say Dr, so I must have used it that way in the period immediately after getting it.

Interestingly my other credit card which I’ve had since before I got my PhD still says Mr. So it never was a big enough thing for me to bother changing it.

nadnadnerb
nadnadnerb
1 month ago
Reply to  Laurence Eyton

In Germanic countries it’s very common, and by extension, less common but not exactly rare in the USA.

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
1 month ago
Reply to  nadnadnerb

Germany has different rules. (A faculty wife is “Frau Professor Doktor” so-and-so.) Also the Germans look down on mere English-language PhD degrees in that German degrees require not one but two dissertations.

Stephan Harrison
Stephan Harrison
1 month ago
Reply to  Laurence Eyton

I do. Before contactless payments I assumed that no 17 year old would be able to nick my credit card and get away with buying anything if I had ‘Dr’ on it. Not relevant now I guess. I was also upgraded on a flight because my passport had Dr on it too.

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
1 month ago
Reply to  Laurence Eyton

Driving up the Main Line in Philadelphia, I once saw a house with a sign (perhaps 1’x4′) on the front lawn announcing this was the house of: “Dr So-and-So Ph.D.”

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
1 month ago

If and when I ever finish my PhD, I have no intention of seeking an academic job. I’ve been exposed to enough university politics to be fully vaccinated against the idea that the ivory tower is in any way, shape, or form still ivory or, for that matter, still towering. I plan to become an overeducated bum. If I can get the other hobos to call me “Perfesser”, I’ll die fulfilled.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

When I think of modern PhD students, I think of those guys at airports who offer to carry your luggage when you can easily carry it yourself. But you let them take your bag anyway and find a coin to silence their cries of ‘Baksheesh!’ The service they offer isn’t worth the cost, and you feel sorry for them while wishing they would go away.

RM Parker
RM Parker
1 month ago

Best giggle of the day so far, thanks for that. FWIW, I think you’re bang on the money – glad I pulled the plug on a PhD in immunology very, very early on. It was all too evident that it wasn’t a passport to anything worth having, and that academia as observed was a circlew@nk which represented humanity’s closest approach so far to perpetual (if pointless) motion.
As an afterthought, having a doctorate and hanging around the senior common room seems pretty much like hanging around with hobos who are just better dressed and less interesting.

Nic Thorne
Nic Thorne
1 month ago

All very well said. Me, I went into my doctorate with my eyes open, and left academia from a temporary lecturer job. I knew what I was getting in to, and was not at all bitter about not making it. I have limited sympathy for people who do get bitter and resentful over this sort of thing – at this point, how can they not know? And this Walsh fellow only did 40 applications a year? I did about twice that. Anyway, given all the ways you can throw away years of your life, I’m not sure getting a PhD is by any means the worst, so long as you’re not dumb enough to go into debt.

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
1 month ago
Reply to  Nic Thorne

I went into my PhD wanting to be an academic. Within 6 months I recognised where academia was heading and that it wasn’t for me.

But I was on a full scholarship and supplemented that with easy undergrad tutoring, so I settled in for 3 more years of student life and had a great time. Churned out my thesis at the last minute – making sure to cram it full of chin-stroking buzzwords – then left and got a real job.

From time to time I have slightly regret my choice because it took a long time to unlearn the lesson that I could get away with half-arsing everything as long as I said the right things to the right people often enough. But mostly I look back fondly on that period as the last time I lived free from any responsibilities.

Kent Ausburn
Kent Ausburn
1 month ago

I too had a lot of fun as a somewhat older, experienced PhD student with income from corporate research financing while actively participating in the campus scene.

Arkadian Arkadian
Arkadian Arkadian
1 month ago
Reply to  Nic Thorne

I wonder why the downvote… It must be a bot.

Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
1 month ago

Back in the day, I simply went to my alma mater and said “gizza job” and they did. Most of my fellow postgrads managed to secure academic jobs one way or another. Lacking any obvious ways to identify into victimhood, it appears I would be lucky to secure an academic post today, and AI will only disrupt things further.

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
1 month ago

There has been a fundamental change in academia’s idea of a PhD. At one time, it was seen as a contribution to scholarship. Nowadays, a large proportion of PhD are no such thing. They are simply extended essays, written according to the whims and fashions of the day and, at best, of ephemeral interest. They are more like rapportage with footnotes than they are like scholarship.
Some are not even rapportage. Here is just one example from my local university (in the Russell Group). They offer a PhD in “Creative Writing”. The student doing this PhD spends the first part of the course doing some creative writing and the second part of the course writing a critical appraisal of what he/she wrote in the first part. This second part is “a critical-reflexive essay, in which you situate your creative project in a critical context.” 

Poet Tissot
Poet Tissot
1 month ago

Sounds pusillanimous.

Campbell P
Campbell P
1 month ago

That bug has infested the Church for their priests too. Most of their MA or doctoral work wouldn’t even get an E pass at ‘A’ level in my day.

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
1 month ago
Reply to  Campbell P

I have noticed that as well. I am a member of the Church of Scotland and I am know of a couple of ministers who have got dodgy doctorates from American institutions that seem to hand out doctorates like a receipt for payment of fees.

Kent Ausburn
Kent Ausburn
1 month ago

I would restrict your comments to non-STEM PhDs.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

Many potential PhD supervisors adopt the tactics of the double glazing salesman.

Chris Whybrow
Chris Whybrow
1 month ago

I don’t want to do a PhD because I think I’ll have a better chance of a job at the end of it. I want to do a PhD so I can stay out of this miserable job market for a few years longer.

William Cameron
William Cameron
1 month ago
Reply to  Chris Whybrow

Work is fun. It’s where you have three course lunches with good wine- try it.

edmond van ammers
edmond van ammers
1 month ago

If you are competent and have an undergraduate degree or a Masters you’ll get a job. Remember, media pages are only filled with the people who fail to get a job. Do a PhD to develop real skills that help you establish a business or be a desirable asset as an employee. The title in itself is useless.

nadnadnerb
nadnadnerb
1 month ago

How do you gain demonstrable competence to an employer if you’re still at uni seven or more years after leaving school?

nadnadnerb
nadnadnerb
1 month ago

The numbers didn’t add up even during my brief uni career (I dropped out without graduating).
It was the 1970s when so many of us were the first generation of their families to go to Uni.
Even then it seemed to me that down the line there’d be not enough jobs for all the new Arts/Humanities graduates except in academia or teaching in a kind of circular job-creation exercise.
And so it came to pass.

Dillon Eliassen
Dillon Eliassen
1 month ago

What about the more base incentive would be professors have, which is tenure? How reasonable does an individual seem who is willing to go through half a decade or more of the hardship of getting the PhD, so that he may get a job he can not be terminated from? Seems like a good way to make anti-social/childish people with tyrannical impulses. Is it any wonder their students can become so disaffected and maladjusted?

Geoff W
Geoff W
1 month ago

You can’t be terminated from an academic job for your political beliefs, but you can be terminated for financial reasons. The department I started in almost thirty years ago had 7.5 full-time tenured jobs, and just before I left it had 3. Most of the losses were voluntary or involuntary redundancies, and justifiable (at least up to a point) because enrolments declined.

Kent Ausburn
Kent Ausburn
1 month ago

Your description of the kind of people created by total, lifelong immersion in the sheltered academic system is a major reason I ran away from it as fast as I could when I finished my PhD. I can honestly say that the majority of the professors I came to know while in university were, at the least, neurotic, and several had much more severe behavioral problems. Kind of a sick environment.

Utter
Utter
1 month ago

Is this related to other phenomena such as museums, galleries and whole cities (Venice) so crowded that they are not worth visiting; popular music becoming bland and corporate; rivers flowing with poop; former Victorian slum houses selling for £millions; protesters and politicians increasingly showing themselves to be thinly veiled narcissists (covert or overt, respectively)? Too many people – population exploding, simultaneously with a decreased need for workers of many stripes.

General Store
General Store
1 month ago

We have had 6 diversity hires in the last 4 years. All women. All POC. Meanwhile undergrad recruitment has dropped by half. And of those applying it seems that 95% + are women – however this is anecdotal, because the latest DEI shibboleth is that demographic data is sensitive and even our recruitment officer is not allowed access to the break down of male/female….God forbid that we would address the recruitment deficit by creating some messaging designed to attract men.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago
Reply to  General Store

The disparity is fascinating in this sense: people tend to marry within their perceived social class, women more so than men. The fewer degreed men, the lower the chances of degreed women finding suitable partners as the uni-gal is not that likely to make a life with blue-collar guy.

General Store
General Store
1 month ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

This is now the subject of a great deal of handwringing among demographers who have identified exactly this mismatch in the marriage pools

General Store
General Store
1 month ago
Reply to  General Store

I would be interested to know who downvoted this comment since it literally just reports the facts on the ground in one department in one university.

David Harris
David Harris
1 month ago
Reply to  General Store

Truth hurts I guess.

Graham Bennett
Graham Bennett
1 month ago

It’s actually worse than this. Through EDI indoctrination and administrative overreach, universities in the UK and much of the Western world now see themselves as essentially detached from the communities and nation states within which they are situated and operate. Leveraging notions such as ‘international’ and ‘global’, and proudly positioning themselves in line with UN sustainability goals, they wish to be seen as supra-national entities, with perceived responsibilities and obligations principally to the wider world, not to the legally-defined parameters of their host nation states. What this means is that in recent times, HR operatives, EDI supremos, and ‘social justice’ activists, along with concepts such as ‘decolonisation’, have ‘intersected’ (i.e., teamed up) to advise that universities’ employment policies should now be geared towards recognising this supra-national identity, thus reflecting what they term the ‘global majority’. In practice this means that, say, in a place such as Scotland, with a majority white population of approx. 96%, universities’ employment policies should not aim to reflect the community in which they operate (and which pays for them), but that of the world at large – i.e., that they ‘must’ employ 95% non-white people to be deemed truly ‘international’. This makes it all but impossible for cis-gender, white, heterosexual males, especially, to find gainful employment in universities, no matter how much they are seen to side with the radical left.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 month ago
Reply to  Graham Bennett

I completely agree with you. Instead, many universities are abandoning their local communities and taking on many international students who then import their political grievances with them hence the rising anti-semitism on university campuses.

Kent Ausburn
Kent Ausburn
1 month ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

You can see evidence of that in video of the pro-Palistine demonstrations, where a large percentage of the demonstrators, and often the majority of the demonstration “leaders”, appear to be of Middle Eastern descent.

Steven Connor
Steven Connor
1 month ago

In its own terms, PhD research can be hugely formative and fulfilling. In an information-driven society, experience of the process of conducting research and, even more importantly, bringing a thesis to completion, is also of great social value and even democratic importance. Understanding what is meant by the magic word ‘research’ is much more important than the outdated or transitory content of the research. But Kathleen is quite right to say that a PhD is not a very good way into an academic career. Less than ever is it even a good preparation for what will be required of you, should an academic job ever come your way. So it is gloomy to read that so many people are pursuing PhDs in the hope that it will be a way into an academic career (though I am surprised the figure is as low as 67% per cent, actually). My settled conviction, obtained from more than four decades of supervising PhDs, is that, precisely because it can be such an excellent way of forming intellectual autonomy, a PhD is far better undertaken part-time, alongside other responsibilities, and using your own money. This also implies that, like youth, PhD research is not well-suited to the young.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago
Reply to  Steven Connor

Great comment, and adds value to the article by Kathleen Stock. Not that other comments don’t (quite a few do) but your perspective on the intellectual rigour and value of process is… invaluable.

Kent Ausburn
Kent Ausburn
1 month ago
Reply to  Steven Connor

Agree. I thoroughly enjoyed my geology PhD research program, a comprehensive study of a gold deposit, which definately took me to another level as a geologist. It also took me to another level of writing and communication skills, which is ultimately of value in all aspects of life.

Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
1 month ago
Reply to  Steven Connor

In other words, a PHD is primarily a tool for personal enrichment. If you can afford the time and the fees, great!

Simon Templar
Simon Templar
1 month ago

Require any university that receives public funding to publish statistics of the 5th-year average earnings of alumni for each of their disciplines. Students can then choose majors with informed consent. End of scam.

Thomas Wagner
Thomas Wagner
1 month ago

I went to Amazon and looked up David Austin Walsh’s book. If you judge by two of the three reviews, it’s a poorly organized, ill-digested farrago of factoids surrounding the theme “right bad, left good.” If you go by the third, it’s a five-star “must read.” Someone must be reading the book upside down.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago

If Walsh is a victim, then he is one of his own making. As a progressive, he was part of the identitarian movement’s growth. Much like the progressive Jew suddenly shocked to learn that he is “the other,” so goes Walsh. Is it a bad system? Of course. But it is also a system that people on the left either allowed to happen or willingly helped to construct.

Phil Mac
Phil Mac
1 month ago

“So, why do people still pursue PhDs in subjects like History at all?”
in many cases, because going out into the World of getting a job doing something valuable scares them to death. They’d prefer never to leave school.
th those who do it because of their deep passion for the subject, my apologies for lumping you in with the other lot.

Jonathan Story
Jonathan Story
1 month ago

Gay and Walsh are both shams. Gay has published about 11 boring articles more or less on the same subject, and Walsh has ruled himself out by writing what the NYT wants him to.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

Humanities? Surely some mistake!

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
1 month ago

The Prussians invented the research university to make Germany strong enough to beat the French. Horace Mann invented the “common school” to reduce the crime rate by 90 percent.
How is that working out, sports fans?

David Morley
David Morley
1 month ago

Poor souls. They haven’t even got a revolution they can fantasise about leading.

David Morley
David Morley
1 month ago

research on the features and mechanisms of structural inequities

Neatly ironic that the study of structural inequity is full of – well, structural inequity.

David Morley
David Morley
1 month ago

Such transactional behaviour doesn’t fit with the popular archetype of the unworldly scholar

It doesn’t really fit with the fact that the rest of us need to be able to rely on the research undertaken and the lessons taught to students. What’s the point of making reference to academic research, when the topics chosen, and the conclusions drawn, are the means to career advancement rather than truth.

Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
1 month ago

On one level I feel sorry DEI caught up with the would be Professor – but how did he not see this coming? Was it OK when it happened to other people. It is a bit like the students chanting anti-Semitic slogans who have been backlisted by employers. You said ‘cancel culture’ is just ‘consequence culture.’ Well – welcome to reality.

Studio Largo
Studio Largo
1 month ago

Feel sorry for these self-important children of privilege? Methinks not. Welcome to the real world, suckers. Who knows, maybe now you’ll learn to do something that’s actually useful.

C D
C D
1 month ago

There is more context that should be added to the topic. Academic publications’ findings tend to become more and more insignificant in many fields. There are fields like theoretical maths where new findings are extremely hard to achive but at the same time more people working to push that frontier of knowledge a tiny little bit further over last decades. My postdoc broke out in tears saying it took him 7 years of hrd work to come up with his theorem. The theorem is now in some text book probably only handful of people in the world even know it exists and to my knowledge has no use case not even in applied maths. Im not saying everything needs a business value, Im saying some im academia need to accept their “exciting” work may remain unspectacular and unaknowledged forever.

In the 20th century people were excited about never ending progress in science, in 21st century people will need to accept its logarithmically converging and the convergence is unexciting. Some things (e.g. origin of universe) we may never find.

Paul Thompson
Paul Thompson
1 month ago

I have retired from my career in science, mostly applied math. What do I see looking backward? I had an interesting time. I published papers. My long-term contribution? Pretty much not much.

Andrew Armitage
Andrew Armitage
1 month ago

I’m lucky to have studied Computer Science. It changes so fast that there’s simply no alternative to lifelong learning.
It also fosters a healthy lack of reverence for the academics who taught you. At least 1/3 was patently false and another 1/3 is irrelevant today.
I’m still surprised by how much recent graduates innately believe what they were taught at university to be an eternal truth

RA Znayder
RA Znayder
1 month ago

There is quite a bit wrong with academia these days. Profit motives, bureaucracies, unstable jobs and a model focused on enrolling as many students as possible while obtaining as many external grants as possible. Research suggests this model is working poorly as we are seeing less disruptive and high-impact research. But all of this does not mean higher education is always useless. There are good and there are bad degrees. And I think if one is honest, one can see which is which.
Similarly, a PhD is not useless. Statistics show that people with PhDs earn significantly more than people with just a bachelor or master. In and outside of academia. That said, there are quite a few programs that are so niche that you have to have an academic career right in that subject. This means you have to be one of leading experts basically. In some PhD programs you get paid and are included as a member of the faculty. In the Netherlands that’s the standard, for example. The only price is that it’s harder to get into these programs, the supply is more limited. If it is not that hard to get into a program and you have to pay a lot of money for it, then this might be a sign that the program is not going to benefit you.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

We have a friend who has a Ph.D in some kind of math: he said this , and he said it has been known forever: people who make A’s (get “Firsts”) teach; people who make B’s go to work for people who make C’s. We need a different scale for measuring intelligence. Ii think intelligence and education are often inversely proportionate.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

We have a friend who lives to say, lushly condescending, “Blue collar…” I have seen him stand utterly helpless in front of his clogged sink. The most valuable people come the Revolution will be those who can GET SHIT DONE.

Studio Largo
Studio Largo
1 month ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Amen to that.

Dr. G Marzanna
Dr. G Marzanna
1 month ago

Fully agree. I did a PhD because it was interesting and I don’t regret it at all but I have no debt. Academia is absolutely dreadful I would not wish it on anyone. Decolonisation this, reparations that, queering the universe- all of it nonsense. Even those still employed in it hate it.
However we do actually need educated people. There are already too many know-nothings out there. We need smart people to help figure out we’re going to work with AI and build a viable future. A history PhD would be a good person to have on board for that.

William Cameron
William Cameron
1 month ago

One thing I learnt working in a university as an Accountant was to be referred to as a “non academic”. We accountants dont go round calling other folk “non accountants.” Lawyers do. They talk of “non lawyers”.
Any profession that refers to the rest of the world as “non them” is delusional.

William Cameron
William Cameron
1 month ago

Surely the solution is to grant Universities true academic freedom. Let them do what they choose and charge what they choose . But no state funding.
There is a clear correlation between the expansion of universities and proliferation of thin quality degrees and the collapse of UK productivity.
Bring back Polytechnics teaching professional stuff, Law , Accounting, Science, Engineering etc. Using night school , day release and sandwich courses- no need for student debts. Academic assets that worked all year- and far less useless irrelevant “research” – merely undertaken for advancement rather than knowledge.